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Seiko Astron: World’s First Quartz Watch Turns 40

Seiko Astron: World's First Quartz Watch Turns 40 Featured Articles

When I was recently in Japan, the Seiko folk made sure we knew all about the Seiko Quartz Astron (ref. 35SQ) watch. For whatever reason, the knowledge that Seiko was the inventor of the world’s first quartz movement powered watch has eluded me (until then that is). Coincidentally, this December 2009 is the 40th anniversary of the Seiko Astron quartz watch. I got to check out one of the original Seiko Astron watches. Two of the images here are mine that I took of a Seiko Astron watch back in Japan. The watch itself is a testament to Seiko having help up so well after 40 years. It looked as though it was made no more than 5 years ago. The retro style of the watch is surprisingly durable as the look of the watch seems to meld well with today’s popular vintage looks. The 18k gold case itself is tonneau in shape with that distressed-like metal textured look that used to be popular. Then you have a smoothly polished dial and a clean functional face. At the time, the design was pretty new for Seiko who had been essentially making the same style watch case for a decade. This was back in 1969.

Seiko Astron: World's First Quartz Watch Turns 40 Featured Articles

The road to a quartz watch was about 10 years long. This was all part of the famed “Project 59A,” a collaboration of Seiko’s top engineering minds trying to figure out how to miniaturize a quartz movement down into a watch. In addition to space, power consumption was a major issue. Seiko already has been making a few working quartz clocks, but each was too large. Always the difficult matter of making things smaller. I was told that the real saving grace to the project was the IC innovation. “IC” standing for integrated circuit in this instance. This technology was smaller and consumed less power that its predecessors like the vacuum tube and transistor.

It was originally planned for quartz movements to have sweeping hands, just like mechanical movements. This is in fact found on some quartz clocks today. But this style of seconds readout was very tough on the power source. The battery needed to be drained continuously to move the hand. Thus, it was decided that a “dead seconds” system be used – where the second hand moves just once each second, thus  reducing the power consumed from the battery. And low and behold that ticking seconds hand that is the hallmark of quartz watches was born. It is all about power consumption and keeping batteries alive in watches from 2-10 years.

Seiko Astron: World's First Quartz Watch Turns 40 Featured Articles

Seiko Astron: World's First Quartz Watch Turns 40 Featured Articles

Once the Seiko Astron Quartz watch arrived, it was like a magnum bullet shot at the most sensitive spot of the mechanical watch industry. Switzerland was terrified. Depending on who you were at the time, this hailed in the era known as the “quartz revolution,” or “quartz crisis.” Revolution and crisis because it was the father of digital quartz watches that became so cheap to make that almost totally destroyed the luxury watch industry. Before the quartz watch – but still battery powered – was the electronic tuning fork regulated watch. Quartz was a lot better than the tuning fork watches. While mechanical watches averaged about 10-20 seconds a day, the Seiko Astron was accurate to within 5 seconds a month. You can tel that the Astron was not some nerdy tech watch. Again, it was conservatively styled and in 18k gold. A luxury watch by standards of the past and of today.

While quartz watches dominate the market today, they are arguably less “emotional” and refined than mechanical watches. Which is why enthusiasts just seem to prefer mechanical watches more (even the people at Seiko as their best watches are mechanical or mechanical in spirit). However, that was not the case when the Quartz Seiko Astron was initially released. It was a unique piece of highly sophisticated technology, and only Seiko had what it took (lots of patience and dedication) to make it happen. It a lot of hard work and 10 years of time isn’t emotion, then I don’t know what is. For that reason some of the classic quartz watches like the Seiko Astron and ones like it are of the most interesting quartz watches to inspect and own as a collector.

PDF with more information about the Seiko Quartz Astron watch and its history here.

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  • Great post. I’ve just started following your blog and podcast; I’m new to all this, and I really value learning more about the history of these companies, their models, technological breakthroughs, etc.

    This does not relate to the Seiko post, but I have to admit that I don’t quite get the obsession that men seem to have with gizmo watches. It’s not as though most of them are navy divers or Grand Prix drivers or what have you. But as I said, I’m new to this, and maybe I just need to drink some more of that horological Kool-Aid and then I’ll understand.

    • Us watch people have different names for ourselves, “watch nut” is one of them. Once you get the “watch bug” you really get it. Try to consider why guys like everything from high-tech computers to fast cars, and everything else that “does more than they need.” Society would be a lot more boring if people only desired the specific amount that they “need” 🙂 It is about what makes us feel good and stimulates our minds.

  • JSP

    Nice photos. Thanks

    • Glad you like ’em Jason, I am glad that came out well. Didn’t check on them until after the trip. Take care.

  • shinytoys

    Happy Birthday Seiko…first quartz watch…

  • Biffo10

    The Seiko Astron was the first quartz watch to enter production & be marketed . 100 rushed pieces were
    available only to customers in Japan, thereby qualifying Seiko for the accolade of ‘ being the first’.
    They were under developed & had technical issues, many just stopped due to failure of the stepping
    motor. Swiss CEH could be argued to be the inventor of the world’s first quartz watch, their Beta models
    existed , pre dating Seiko, from 1966.  They opted to delay release to the paying public until they were
    entirely happy that their pieces technically warranted the high asking price for the new technology, no
    such scruples at Seiko lol ! Even today, many collectors & buyers prefer the kudos & technical merit of 
    Swiss quartz over anything from Japan.

  • spinmetals

    I’d really appreciate any help in evaluating a Seiko that came to me in a family estate.  I am not a watch guy and very much out of my depth. thanks.  Cliff 650 678-2666 or